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"Ira Pelletier: The Mandolin Man"

By David Morrison

Around 1987, R.E.M. guitar hero Peter Buck became rather bored with his instrument, so decided to teach himself some new moves. No big deal in itself, but after picking up a mandolin for the first time, putting it down presented a problem. It’s claimed he became utterly obsessed with it, playing nothing else for over a year as he seriously contemplated abandoning guitars altogether. And let’s not forget that this idée fixe led straight to the most recognizable mandolin riff in contemporary rock: Losing My Religion.

If there’s someone that fully comprehends the bewitching spell a mandolin can cast upon a musician, it’s Nanaimo’s Ira Pelletier. This charming 28-year-old’s personal 8-string awakening came following the repair of a broken mandolin that belonged to his father. When initially tinkering with the rebuilt instrument, he realized soon enough there was no going back.

On a peaceful Sunday morning in the busy living room of his farmhouse home, Pelletier’s two indefatigable dogs smothered us with slobbering affection as he recalled the moment the rescued mandolin changed his musical outlook forever. “It was just… all of a sudden, I could play,” he told me, seemingly still amazed at the event.

His early musical education took in piano, which he hated, before moving onto guitar and bass, which he didn’t. Even so, the mandolin swept them all aside: “I don’t think I’ve touched the bass since,” he continued, echoing Buck’s emotional response to the same instrument. “I felt like I was struggling so hard up to the point I played this mandolin.”

Since that day, Pelletier has developed into a self-confessed “mandolin freak,” so I asked him what it is about this instrument that so firmly gripped him then and continues to hold him entranced. “I don’t know if it’s because it was tuning fifths, or because it was smaller, or just because I like the sound of it, but it became all encompassing. And you know… the history of them… and they’re beautiful.”

When Pelletier opened its case to display his favourite of an expanding collection, I found it impossible to dispute that a vintage mandolin is indeed an elegant and sexy piece of kit. A 1914 Gibson A he bought from Canadian roots legend Ken Hamm, it’s gorgeous. Pelletier scooped it up and began coaxing out a tune. Within seconds, his head tilted to one side and his eyes closed in rapture as the intensity of his relationship with the antique instrument became immediately evident. Phew.

Anyone who has seen Pelletier play will know this and, fortunately, he offers ample opportunities to witness his skills. It was in fact his hard-gigging work ethic that first drew me to Pelletier, his name appearing with marked regularity in local live music listings. Yet the first time I saw him perform – topping the bill of a Shack Records night at The Mermaid’s Mug - he didn’t play his beloved mandolin, but acoustic guitar. Delivering a clutch of irresistible originals, he was delightful, effortlessly winning over the audience with his chilled demeanour and engaging style.

Shows where he returns to the guitar are rare, but across numerous diverse projects, Pelletier is never idle. He plays in The Cherry Bridge String Trio/Quartet (depending on who’s available), bar band 8th & Main, acoustically with guitarist Edward Lee and also with “bad boy” bluegrass combo Vincent 45. As a bluegrass nut, the latter is his preferred avenue of musical expression: “That’s where my heart is,” he revealed.

Determined to experiment with his instrument, Pelletier takes every opportunity to progress his technique. Considering the likes of prog-metal outfits Mastodon and Tool as valid in influence as his mandolin idol David Grisman, it’s no wonder he looks to “take the mandolin into uncharted territories.” This is reflected in the material of the rock-jazz-metal-folk-whatever fusion band Pelletier formed with the brilliant Lee, in which he uses an extraordinary electric mandolin built by his brother Arlen. Pelletier is exploring its capabilities by upending expectation and tradition: “ I’ve been using effects pedals and stuff like that to go out in a psychedelic jam band kind of area,” he explained.

Who knows, with his passion for the mandolin and bold approach to its sonic possibilities, the eminently likeable Pelletier may one day become as widely associated with the instrument as Grisman. I’ll sure be keeping a keen eye on his development … if I can keep up with his activities!

- More Living Magazine


Debut album "Wine in the Cupboard" released July 2011

New EP "Thought and Memory" set to be released May 2012



Skagway has a new EP "Thought and Memory" to be released May 2012!

About Skagway:

Skagway is a modern bluegrass duo that is steeped in tradition. In the relatively short time the band has been together, they have become a mainstay of the Vancouver Island bluegrass and folk music scene.

Skagway is known for their powerful original songs and instrumentals, their fast picking, and their energetic stage presence. As the core of the band, Ira Pelletier and Tad Ruszel have a hard driving rhythm, that they mix with their own brand of soulful harmony. They engage audiences with their witty banter and bountiful stage presence.

Whether you are a fan of bluegrass music, enjoy great acoustic music, or just love to listen to people having fun singing and picking, this is a band you do not want to miss.

Their first album “Wine in the Cupboard” was realeased in July 2011.

Skagway has been invited to play such festivals as the Coombs Country Bluegrass Festival, The Sooke River Bluegrass Festival, The Lighthouse Bluegrass Festival, and the Islands Folk Festival to name a few.

“Bringing lots of young energy to the stage, they arrive complete with their own audience. Mixing traditional bluegrass and newgrass together, they have created their own sound. An act not to be missed, there's some hot pickin’ coming from this band.” Linda Thorburn - Coombs Country Bluegrass Festival

"I can tell you hand on heart that I think it's STUNNING. You boys should be mighty proud of what you've achieved here, as it's a wonderful contemporary bluegrass/roots album that can stand up to anything released in this arena in recent years. The playing from all concerned, especially you two wizards, is exemplary; the songs are really beautiful, and I love the balance between the vocal tunes and the instrumentals. The production is clean and crisp, and the packaging is just perfect to enhance the content. Seriously, we love it, so colour us very impressed indeed."

David Morrison

Ira and Tad hire only the best musicians to back them up. Some of these musician include: Archie Pateman (The Breakmen), Miriam Sonstenes (Sweet Lowdown), Dinah D (The Kerplunks)